Kansat Uprising: The first peasant revolution in Bangladesh in a long time

 A.H. Jaffor Ullah

Published on April 15, 2006

A quiet peasant revolution against the authority was in the making in the first four months of 2006 in northwestern part of Bangladesh, which hardly drew the attention of national media. Now don�t get me wrong! The national newspapers covered the news but only when police fired at the rebellious peasants. This happened once in January and twice in April. Up until now (April 12, 2006), a total of 20 peasants had died in the bloody conflict. Just think for a moment, twenty people had to give their life before the conflict made a splash in the major newspapers of Bangladesh. On April 13 quite a few write-ups graced the pages of daily newspapers and few editorials criticizing the sanity of Khaleda Zia Administration also were published on the same day. Do you think Bangladesh�s PM who is euphoric about her just completed foreign trips would pay much attention to the news? Nay!

I browsed the Internet forums where expatriate Bangalees visit to get information about their homeland. I was disappointed seeing no mention of Kansat killings anywhere. The deshi Internetters had no idea where Kansat is located. By the sound of it, many of us had erroneously thought that the place is located in the West. Fortunately, some international news agency had published in full color the picture of the conflict. One could clearly see that the peasants �armed� with bamboo sticks that looked like our folks.

Why the peasants from Kansat (located near Chapai Nawabganj) took to the streets to voice their anguish? Do they have a real gripe? Or, was it that they were bored to death and they wanted to have some excitement in the advent of spring and Bengali New Year. It turns out that the peasants from this remote area of Bangladesh that is located about 250 kilometers from Dhaka have a legitimate complaint against the electric supply department of Bangladesh. They say that they receive very little electricity per day; hardly 1-2 hours with which they cannot do any agricultural operations. Each month they pay a fixed amount of money no matter how much electricity comes to their doorsteps. And to make the matter worse, some men from the electricity department is charging Taka 10 every month as meter rental fees, which the peasants say are not in the contract. So, they formed a protest body calling it �Palli Bidyut Unnayan Sangram Committee� (PBUSC) or �Action Committee for Rural Power Development.� through which they started making complaints. When they first took to the streets in January this year, the government decided to crush the movement by following a scorched-earth policy.

The peasants told the newsmen that like everyone else in the nation they also need electricity to do their farm chores. In one sense their livelihood is linked with the availability of electricity. The movement had grown by leaps and bounds. An estimated 12,000 strong local peasants from few scattered villages have joined the movement and it seems like they are ready to go to the bitter end to bring a closure to this problem of receiving a smidgen of electricity. The peasants� complaint is legitimate but the government of Khaleda Zia is turning a deaf ear to their plea. Instead of sending a troubleshooter or a local member of the parliament the government, which is out of touch with reality, had labeled these innocent peasants as terrorists. It has become a second nature to Khaleda Zia, the PM of Bangladesh, to crush any dissension by bullets. Many civil rights organizations in Bangladesh have raised the issue that the police and sharpshooters (RAB) have killed many people whoever they thought are criminals. The government is so much used to deal with mass demonstration with force that it sent police and BDR (Bangladesh Rifles) to quell the uprising. This insane approach had resulted in the death of 20 peasants some are only 15-16 years old.

The Kansat uprising is a unique case of civil disobedience in this nascent democracy. The peasants are apolitical but have elected the ruling party candidate in the parliamentary election, which might change according to disgruntled villagers. The peasants have no leader or spokesperson but they follow the decisions made by the committee. Until recently, no political parties were interested listening to their grievances. On April 13, 2006 the 14-party opposition group had meetings with the villagers and promised to apply political pressure to the government so that they receive electricity for irrigation in the leaner months. The government now realizes that things have gone too far and they might lose a valuable seat in the next parliamentary election. Therefore, a spokesperson from the government had promised to bring a closure to the problem. The rebel peasants are so incensed by the apathy of the government that they may not trust the authorities at anytime soon.

To bring a perspective to peasant rebellion in Bengal let me delved into history of our motherland. Bengal is famous for peasant revolution dating back to Mughal time. In Jessore, a local Hindu Raja by the name Pratapaditya gave leadership to a rebellion against the mighty Mughal, which nearly cost him his life during 1610-1612. The heroic tales of Raja Pratapaditya engendered many legends and folklore in Bengal. Novelist Bankim Chandra Chatterjee in late nineteenth century wrote novels based on peasant rebellion including one by the ascetic sanyasis. The novella Anandamoth describes in details how sanyasis fought the invading force. Bankim�s another novella �Sitaram� also gave graphic description of another peasant uprising in Bengal.

In the middle of twentieth century right before Bengal was partitioned based on M.A. Jinnah�s dubious Two-nation theory, an uprising by the name Tebhaga Andolon (sharecroppers� movement) had exemplified the supreme sacrifice and tenacity of rural folks. The Nachole uprising near Kansat, Chapai Nawabganj in 1950 by Santal tribe was patterned after Tebhaga Andolon. In the next fifty-six year we have not seen any such organized peasant movement. Is it possible that the young generation in Kansat may have heard about the heroic tale of Tebhaga and Nachole Andolon? I have no clue but as per oral tradition, which is very common in Bengal, the villagers may have heard the tales of the past uprisings.

In summary, the peasants from villages near Kansat, Chapai Nawabganj had organized a movement to demand their fair share of electricity during January to April 2006. The government instead of settling issue peacefully turned the conflict into a bloody one. So far 20 people have died and the affected villagers are fleeing their home in droves for safety. The uprising had surprised many people in Bangladesh. The Amnesty International also had made an appeal and so did Mukto-Mona forum in the Internet for government�s restraint and to bring the matter to a peaceful closure. In democracy people have every right to demonstrate peacefully. The government of Khaleda Zia had mistakenly labeled the peasants as �terrorists� and applied her scorched-earth policy to bend the back of the peasants. It had made the matter worse. Now that opposition parties in Bangladesh and outsiders have heard the plights of Kansat people we could only hope that the peasants� meager demand will be met. The Kansat people had indeed paid the price of electricity with their blood. In democracy, no government should be as tyrannical as Khaleda Zia government. Perhaps, the legacy of cantonment politics runs through her vein. If I am not wrong, her party was engendered in Kurmitola cantonment. What more could you expect!

Dr. A.H. Jaffor Ullah, a researcher and columnist, writes from Ithaca, NY